The hills of Montalbano, known as le colline di Leonardo (Leonardo’s hills), are prime olive-growing territory. From the top of the hill where we have our olive grove, a endless silver-green sea stretches out in every direction, blending into the bright green of vineyards at the foot of the hills. Since olive farmers in Tuscany are usually small producers, a single hillside can be an irregular patchwork of multiple small groves nestled alongside each other.
There are rarely fences or wall between groves, which gives the hillsides a harmonious appeararence but initially caused me great confusion as I tried to remember where our grove ended and our neighbours’ began. I tried memorising tree shapes and counting terraces – after all, it wouldn’t do to go picking olives from the wrong tree – while marvelling at Michele’s mysterious ability to identify exactly which trees were ours. Eventually I realised that the boundaries were deliniated by the other varieties of trees growing at intervals in the grove.
Holm oak (known in Tuscany by the lovely name querciolo) and fig are are the most commonly used for this purpose as they thrive in a similar terrain and climate to the olive tree. We are lucky to have a combination of trees marking the boundaries of our uliveto – oaks, but also fruit trees including walnut, pear, and best of all, several varieties of fig.
The fig and the olive are an ancient pairing, laden with cultural symbolism and historical significance. Personally I love the visual contrast the fig trees provide with the olive trees. In terms of colour, leaf shape, trunk texture and growth habit they are completely different, but somehow they compliment each other perfectly. When I see them together I always think of Aesop’s fable, in which the arrogant evergreen olive tree mocks the fig tree for its winter nudity, before being crushed by the weight of a heavy snowfall – the snow falls between the bare branches of the fig tree and it escapes unharmed.
The figs on one of our trees have started to ripen, although we face fierce competition from the birds for the fruit. I think fresh figs are one of the most Mediterranean of flavours, tasting of sunshine and summer. They are traditionally a symbol of plenty and for me there is still something terribly indulgent and luxurious about eating them fresh from the tree – maybe because when they featured in my English childhood they were always dried and only ever appeared at Christmas.
Fresh figs for breakfast in the olive grove, admiring the view over the Montalbano hills, is another experience entirely.